"Never mind about something to eat," said the old fellow. " I've got grob enough for us all in my hamper yonder. Br'iled fish, duck, an' a little bread, an' a few oranges. S'pose we can make out, 'thout you're too oncommon powerful feeders. As for takin' ye over to Berkley's, s'pose I can do it, seein' yer in a fix. But the main thing with me about now is to know what in the world you'ns is a doin' away out here, a playin' round with these here bows and arrers!"
There was a smack of genuine curiosity in his voice and manner which I could not refrain from respecting. So, while we lounged in the shade, I took pains to relate to him many of my pleasantest adventures, "by field and flood," with the long-bow. He listened with the quick, sincere interest of a child, and by the time the tide had turned I had evidently won both his respect and admiration. When we had eaten his food, which proved very palatable, and, having struck a bargain with him, were on the point of embarking in his skiff, he suddenly proposed that, as it was a long pull to Berkley's, we should go to his cabin on a neighboring island for the night, and proceed to Berkley's in the morning. As if by way of sauce to this suggestion, he said that we could take the estuary before mentioned in our way, and have an hour or two of good sport shooting wild-fowl. Nothing could have better pleased us. The proposition was quickly accepted, and five minutes later we were in his staunch boat, sweeping at no mean speed down upon the wooded crescent that flanked the feeding-place of the wild-fowl.
The old man, as he pulled us along, with slow, steady strokes, told us he was living just the sort of life that pleased him. He was as happy as he desired to be. He had a little "place" over on the island yonder, a few orange trees, a garden spot, some bananas, some fig trees, and a few other comforts suited to his mode of life. For the rest he fished, and took the world easy. He didn't see any use of people rushing and racing after wealth, when contentment and case were so much more preferable. How long had he been living here? Thirty years! Was at the point of death with consumption when he came-from Tennessee, I believe-and now see how hale and strong he was for one of his years!
We drew on, and, passing around the sickle-like point of the crescent and through a narrow way between high walls of rushes, swept into a singular pond-like place, where tufts of tall grass dotted the surface of the water, which was literally alive with fowl. I shared my thirty-four arrows with Will, and when everything was ready, the sport began. The old man refused to fire a shot. It was good enough for him to watch our display of archery, and this was uncommonly sharp at times. In fact, we never did better work than on that evening. Some half-accidental wing-shots, resulting from letting drive through a bunch of ducks as they rose from the water, particularly pleased our boatman, and when I clipped a redhead through a quartering shot over fifty yards of water, he clapped his hands, and most emphatically and profanely praised both my skill and my lemon-wood weapon, which latter was the first of the kind I had ever tried, and proved to be a- marvel of elasticity and power.
Part of the time I took my stand on a low tussock, keeping well hidden in the high grass, whence I had some beautiful shots at short distances, scoring a number of charming hits, but losing arrows so rapidly that presently, to my surprise, I had but seven left. After this, I took none but fair chances, and shot with great care. My companions in the canoe kept drifting slowly around here and there, continually driving the birds to me, and if I had had a fresh sheaf of arrows, I could have killed scores. I was astonished to find them so tame. Quite often, when I knocked one over, its companions would, instead of flying away, swim curiously round about the fluttering victim. This is one of the beauties of hunting with our weapon. The short, dull sound of the bow's recoil can be heard but a little distance, and the sharp whisper of a well-sent arrow is not of a character to frighten game. When we left that estuary, it was yet literally moving with fowl, though we had killed a great number. If so many shots from a fowling-piece had been fired there, not a wing would have remained!-the mere noise itself would have driven them away.
We had lost all our arrows when, at about an hour before sunset, we slipped out through the narrow channel and pulled away for the low-lying island close into the mainland, upon which our boatman lived. A steady pull of perhaps three-quarters of an hour, over a blue, peaceful sheet of sea, brought us into the mouth of a slender creek, cutting with a graceful curve into the heart of the island. This was our way. We looked beyond a point of marsh to our left, and saw the sun like a mighty ball of red-hot metal just touching the far limit of the glorified sea, and then we passed into the cool shade of trees, that made a charming twilight, and soon we ran alongside of a pretty sail-boat lying at anchor in the creek, putting to shore where a flight of wooden steps led up a little bluff.
The old man bustled out and helped us ashore with our game, after which he led the way up the steps to where a broad path curved into an inclosure whose fence was a hedge of magnificent old orange trees.
"Here's my possessions," he said, and, bidding us follow him, he walked rapidly along the path, drawing us into an orchard of some six hundred orange trees in full fruit, passing through which we came into a garden of bananas, hedged with dusky fig and lemon trees; beyond this still, and fronting a stretch of open sea, stood a low, rambling house of five or six rooms, built of round logs. Neatness and comfort everywhere. We were met at the door by a pleasant-looking old lady, our boat-man's wife. A married son with his wife and three children dwelt here, too-a family of hermits, from whom we had more than royal welcome. The old man grew more interesting as we became more familiar with his peculiarities, and both he and his household seemed delighted to have us for guests. I took great pleasure in answering the multitude of questions asked by old and young, sitting up till far into the night describing places I had seen and adventures that had befallen me in my rambles. I can think of nothing more roman-tic than the situation and circumstances of this isolated home on a wild island of the semi-tropics. Evidently it was a place of perfect peace and contentment, where sickness was unknown, and where the good and bad effects of what are called refinement and culture had scarcely been heard of. Year after year they had lived there among their orange, lemon, and pomegranate trees, their bananas and figs, with no wants beyond the ready power of unaided Nature to supply-happy, healthy and with nothing like real labor to do. I think they would have willingly sat up all night listening, with all the sincerity of children, to such scraps of incident and adventure as I could call to mind and relate for their amusement. Such utter simplicity would be hard to imagine if one had not witnessed it.
That night we slept on dry, sweet beds of dried moss. As for me, my dreams were of an island-home embowered in tropical fruit-trees, where I dwelt in the bosom of my family. Next morning we were taken out in the sail-boat, and had a charming voyage of two hours to Berkley's.
When we reached Berkley's, nothing would do our old friend and his son but to have Will and me take a fresh supply of arrows and go back with them for a week's sport. So urgent and so evidently hearty was this request, that we complied, and that very evening found us again at the quiet old home on the island. We tried to make up for such hospitality by loading the boat with a host of things we thought might be acceptable to the family, taken from the store we had established at Berkley's, among which were a set of delf-ware, some knives and forks, and a small box of plug-tobacco. I shall not give the name of this illiterate, but honest and charmingly hospitable family, and my reason is easily understood. They are living there in that lonely home this day, and if their simple trustfulness and generosity, and their exact place of residence were known to the host of tourists and rambling "dead-head " bores that every winter flock to the South, their peaceful retreat would soon become, to those ignorant but gentle hermits, unendurable.
It is not the purpose of this chapter to give a detailed account of the many delightful adventures that befell us during the eight days that we had our headquarters at "Hermit Home," as Will has ever since called the place. The old man and his son did little else but take us here and there from one hunting-ground to another, finding it a constant source of amusement to watch us shoot.
We ran up a small stream some miles into the mainland once, and spent two days deer-hunting. We saw but one deer, and this we did not kill. We got greater game, however; for the dogs " treed " a bear, which Will and I brought to earth with five arrows, one of which, with a " bodkin point," I drove entirely through his head, passing in between the ear and the eye, and coming out on the other side just below the eye. This was the largest animal we ever killed with the bow. His weight was about three hundred pounds, I should guess, though we had no means of ascertaining it. We gave the skin to the old man. While on this hunt I got lost in a dense swamp and thought for a while I should never again see home and friends. Such a vile place as that swamp was I hope to be forever clear of. It was the paradise of snakes. I must have seen a thousand moccasins. They were everywhere-on logs, on tussocks, swimming in the water, writhing together among the tangled roots of trees, drying them-selves on the cypress knees, sliding and squirming about my feet, lapping their red, forked tongues and leering at me from every conceivable place-you would not give credence to the whole truth if I should tell it. For four terrible hours I waded round and round in that venomous place, shouting myself hoarse, and blowing my whistle till my lips were sore. Finally I found a little ditch-like stream, and following this it led me out. Near this stream, and in the midst of the swamp, I came to an old, half-rotten boat, which had once been painted blue, and on its gunwale was still legible the inscription, "U. S. A., 1832." No doubt this was a relic of some tragedy, but what were its circumstances and who its actors we can never know. The boat had been in its present position for many years, for considerable trees were growing in such a way as to show that they had sprung up since, and one end of the vessel, sunken deep in the swamp-muck, was literally crushed in the grasp of huge roots that had twined themselves around it.
I was overjoyed when I again found my friends. I felt as though I had been delivered from some-thing worse than a den of lions, and I imagined I had suffered all the horrors, without the dementia, of delirium tremens.
The following night we camped on the beach, having for our bed the soft, warm sand, and for our canopy a sky as blue and resplendent as that of Italy. About midnight, happening to become wakeful and restless, I put on my clothes (I had been sleeping wrapped in a light blanket), and, taking my bow and quiver, lighted my pipe, and strolled leisurely round a point of rush-marsh bordering a finger of shell-beach a half mile south of us. The moon, nearly at its full, was high, and shining with a power unknown in latitudes farther north. I could distinguish objects at a distance almost as readily as by daylight, and the peculiar sheen of the water and the dimly defined shadows of the rushes made beautiful lines of contrast athwart the mellow picture. The wind drew gently landward, sharp and fragrant, a real breath of the tropics. The tide made strong currents between the little islands off shore, down which the porpoises ran, rising at regular intervals to cut the surface with their dingy swords, puffing like some powerful sub-marine engines. I stopped at a certain point, and gazed for a long time, with a dreamful sort of interest, on the charming sweep of sea and islands clothed in the fantastic mantle of moon and star-light. Sometimes a myriad of silvery mullet would leap up and fall back into the water, like a shower of jewels, and anon a single skip-jack would shoot almost vertically into the air, his fins whiz-zing like the wings of a quail. The all-pervading murmur of the sea seemed more like silence than sound, and, though the combined light of the stars and moon was wonderfully strong, still a soft, mysterious wavering of the outlines of things gave them an unreal, ghostly semblance. The air, though coming from over leagues and leagues of water, was peculiarly dry and pleasant to the lungs. Consumption could not be generated in that region; it is a very garden of health. While I stood there leaning on my bow, and enjoying the influence of the night, I became aware of certain small, shadowy forms stealthily but nimbly running out from the rushes and down the beach to the surf-line.
One, two, three, ten, twenty, more than a hundred of them marshalled within a distance of three or four hundred yards, some no farther away than a good bow-shot. My attention being now called to them, I could hear them quarrelling in sharp tones the while they made a munching sound as if cracking shells with their teeth. They looked something larger than cats, and ran, or rather ambled along, with their backs bowed up and their round tails held straight out behind. Now and then a half-dozen or more of them would rush together, apparently in great anger, fight furiously for a few seconds, then separate, each individual going his way none the worse from the contest. It was a weird masquerade, its effect heightened by the stillness of the night and the deceptive glamour of the moonshine, and while I watched it with that half-sleepy interest characteristic of one who has got up at midnight from a restless slumber, suddenly a great bird swept by me, passing not more than twenty feet from my head. It sped like a ray of darkness, making not the slightest noise with its wings, and struck one of the small animals like a bolt. A sharp cry of anger and pain, and then a general stampede of the masqueraders as they rushed into the marsh-grass in the direction of a densely timbered swamp, leaving the beach clear with the exception of the bird and its victim, now struggling in a silent, ominous way. Evidently it was a matter of life and death with the contending parties -- a close, hard wrestle for the mastery. I strung my bow as quickly as I could, then, running forward a few paces nearer, I drew and let drive with as good aim as I could. The arrow left the string with a clear, whirring sound, and I heard it strike with a dull thud as the huge bird tumbled over and began a loud flapping of its wings. I hurried to the spot, and found the largest owl I ever saw, pierced through by the arrow, and near by lay a raccoon dying from the wounds the bird had given it. I had frequently before seen owls and hawks strike smaller animals, but this was something rare. The raccoon was a very large one. Possibly my arrow may have helped to kill it, but I think it did not. I took my bird to camp, and, refreshed by my curious adventure, lay down and slept till sunrise.
The following day we returned to the Hermit's Island, and the next we went back to Berkley's, whence, the season being about over, we made our way to the hill country of North Georgia, to spend the summer in the pleasant valley of the Coosawattee, where the bass-fishing is the best that I know of in the world.